Author: Susan Hill
Publication Date: 1983
In a nutshell: Contrived, mock-classic Gothic novella trying too hard to feel atmospheric.
Summary: A young lawyer must travel to a decrepit house on a marsh. There, he’ll have to go through the tonnes of paperwork that an old lady left behind after dying. But a ghost will begin to appear to him.
The author, Susan Hill, wanted to write a ghost story in the style of the Victorians (although the action is set a few decades later). Using the same language of the classic horror stories and all the tropes we are familiar with. The problem is that, while doing so, she didn’t provide a single little innovative ingredient.
Susan Hill limited herself to write a story that has no difference with a novella that could have been written in, say, the 1890s. Usually, when we do one of these exercises of style and write in the fashion of a given period, we do it to provide some form of new take, a meta-reflection, a new twist on things.
For example, people revisit Jane Austen to mix it with zombies (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), or to create a mystery novel in that familiar setting (Death Comes to Pemberley). Other people tell Jane Eyre story from the point of view of the mad wife and thus create a feminist take on that famous novel. Unlike them, this author limits herself to write exactly as if she was really in 1890s, no extras.
Don’t get me wrong, people can do as they please. I am all for freedom of expression and creation. I am just saying that what Susan Hill wrote is boring. If she had a great time writing it, good for her. I had a boring time reading it.
Her story doesn’t work because most of us, people of the early 21st century, are not scared anymore by the same things they were in the 1890s. It’s true that some of us, out of nerdiness, love to read old Gothic novels, but most of the time we are not afraid or particularly thrilled by the story, we get the thrill from the historic component, an antiquarian thrill (“Wow, look at this dude from the 1890s, the way they saw the world, the way they lived…”). When the story is really good, we get some entertainment from it, but for most classic horror stories, we get most of our entertainment from the window they are into our past.
With The Woman in Black, we just get the outdated ghost story without the historiographic thrill of learning about how people wrote and thought a century ago. And when I say outdated I mean it: Susan Hill managed to be as naive and unspooky as the dullest of 19th-century authors.
There’s some coziness in the writing that I enjoyed.
For example, when she describes the Christmas celebration in the opening. Also when the hero buys food and supplies prior to his return to the haunted house.
It’s not that I loved these scenes but they were good enough.
Flashes of good description
Here and there I came across passages of good description.
Too bad that they were soon suffocated by all the surrounding excess.
If 90% of the atmospheric description were removed from the novel, the remaining 10% of atmospheric description would be nice to read.
Tries to hard
Have I mentioned the author tries too hard? Oh boy, she does!
Trying too hard summarizes all problems in this book, striving desperately to:
1) be atmospheric
There are so many atmospheric descriptions that rather than moody they read like a parody.
2) be Gothic
Instead of subtly creating the brooding settings that we so much enjoy from Gothic literature, the author straight-in-your-face states that most things are gray, foreboding and gloomy. Susan Hill: show don’t tell!
3) to feel “period”
Probably this is the less bad of the three “trying too hards”. Still, although not as bad, the period aspect comes across as somewhat confusing. Susan Hill writes in the style of Henry James, the quintessential example of florid, 19th-century writer who wrote a ghost story (The Turn of the Screw). Although an excellent craftsman, James could feel a bit too convoluted, even to Victorian standards. Now, Susan Hill’s writing manages to be as stuffy as his was, but, unfortunately, with none of his superior flair for words.
What is worse, she gets her retro-style and her time period all mixed up. The novel is set around the 20s, and yet the style she uses is that of the Victorians that lived 40 years earlier. In the 20s, writers favored a style much lighter and more contemporary than the one used here by Hill. So this makes her recreation of the past a bit absurd. Why take the pain of mocking the Victorians and then set it 40 years later? Actually, when you read the novella, you think all the time that you are in the 19th century (everything is about carriages and horses and cottages and things like that). Only the mention of a couple of cars makes you realize you are in the 20s. Why Susan?
In sum, with this novel, Susan Hill manages to really sound like a Victorian writer, but like a mediocre and pretentious one; and, after all that effort of mocking the style of a specific period, she inexplicably sets her story in a moment when that period, the Victorian era, had already ended.